It's long been known that nature is a calming and healing force for humans, but recent studies are teaching us that being outside is not only good for us, it fundamentally impacts our bodies and changes our brains. Science is now unlocking the truth behind conventional wisdom and giving us a peak into how nature improves our mental and physical health.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, simply getting into a natural environment changes where the blood in our brain flows, causing a lift in mood and battling anxiety and depression. In a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined why urban dwellers experience more mental health problems, anxiety, and neurological pathologies by scrutinizing how a walk in both nature and urban environments impacted mood. Researchers found walks in nature reduced blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with "morbid rumination" (i.e. obsessing over negative thoughts and feelings) where a walk in an urban setting had little benefit.
So if you need a pick-me-up, take a stroll in a park or nearby national park and start changing your brain.
Nature also restores our ability to focus day to day. A study showed that time spent in nature improved ability to solve puzzles and tasks when they individuals were extremely fatigued. The mechanism proposed by which this happens is called attention restoration theory (ART). According the ART, urban landscapes are taxing on your attention because they demand you "LOOK THERE" to avoid bumping into a stranger or being hit by a bus. Over time, this fatigues the mind and negatively affects your ability to focus on tasks that require careful attention.
“Forests, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans demand very little from us, though they’re still engaging, ever changing, and attention-grabbing. "
Natural environments lack this urgent demand for attention and allow the mind to relax and restore a natural balance for attention. According to the Atlantic article, "Forests, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans demand very little from us, though they're still engaging, ever changing, and attention-grabbing. The difference between natural and urban landscapes is how they command our attention. While man-made landscapes bombard us with stimulation, their natural counterparts give us the chance to think as much or as little as we'd like, and the opportunity to replenish exhausted mental resources."
Time spent outdoors in natural landscapes can also help us cope with pain and stress more effectively. Studies show that patients with access to natural environments heal faster, experience less pain, and spend less time recovering in hospital rooms. On top of that, spending time outdoors produces an immediate positive physiological effect, including lower cortisol levels, reduced heart rate, and lower reported levels of anxiety.
It's amazing that with such clear benefits to being outdoors, so few people regularly immerse themselves in natural environments. Rheos exists to encourage more people to spend time outdoors, and now we can tell you with authority that it's good for you (thanks science!). So grab a pair of shades, and #lookaround at the wonderful world around you. Your mind (and body) will thank you.